After Disney-owned Pixar charged into the 2020s with the one-two punch of Onward and Soul, the mainline Walt Disney Animation has entered the fray with their latest jab at multicultural representation. Much as Moana focused on Polynesian culture, Raya And The Last Dragon seeks to be a platform for Southeast Asia, bolstered by a wealth of Asian-American voice talent ranging from Fandom Menace survivor Kelly Marie Tran as the warrior princess Raya to rising star Awkwafina as the water dragon Sisu, right down to Thalia Tran as Noi the littlest con artist and a brief appearance from Dumbfoundead as Chai the flower guy. Even the main writing credits follow suit, with Vietnamese-American playwright Qui Nguyen and Crazy Rich Asians co-writer Adele Lim.
Following Raya and Sisu on an adventure across the vibrant and splintered land of Kumandra as they track down the pieces of a mystical orb, the universe here feels like its own little world. The individual lands of Heart, Fang, Spine, Talon and Tail show great variety, and the graphic fidelity in all the little elements that comprise them, from light to rainfall to the textures on the characters themselves, is masterfully presented. Ditto for James Newton Howard’s soundtrack, which hasn’t sounded this splendorous in quite some time.
The story at large deals heavily in the concept of trust between people, with the fractured landscape serving as geographic representation of what happened to the nations within. While it adds certain facets to the characterisation of Raya, easily one of the most morally conflicted of the Disney Princesses, along with her connection to rival Namaari (Gemma Chan), the way this theme manifests in the narrative feels far too simplistic.
It gets to the point where adults with adventurous livers could make a drinking game out of how many times “trust” is brought up in dialogue, and the way that it’s treated as a part of human behaviour is equally as leaden. Trust here is presented as something that is vital for existence, but its exploration never goes further than ‘we must do this thing, just trust us’. With Disney’s last effort Frozen II, easily one of the most challenging animated features of the entire 2010s, Raya being so perfunctory feels beneath their abilities. And not just the studio’s either; co-director Carlos López Estrada going from the likes of Blindspotting to this is quite disheartening.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with Raya And The Last Dragon, it’s merely serviceable.
In cinemas March 4 and on Disney+ with Premier Access from March 5.